In Arsene We Trust?
Arsenal’s 2011-2012 season was hell. There is no other way to put it. It was a complete inferno.
It began with months of speculation over three key first-team players: Captain Cesc Fabregas, and the two first-team regulars, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri. The Spanish master went to his boyhood club Barcelona, while the French couple went off to fulfill their futures at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester. Incoming transfers were last minute and unconvincing, with yet another two raw youngsters coming into the squad, and the mandatory Wenger Ligue-1 star signing in Gervinho.
All this was followed by a very shaky pre-season, which saw the team losing its own Emirates Cup, failing to win against lesser sides such as Boca Juniors and New York Red Bulls, and eventually losing to Benfica as well in the Eusebio Cup. After this kind of pre-season, fans already knew something isn’t right.
But even before that, things were not looking very positive at all for Arsene Wenger and the club. The team had failed to win a single domestic or international title for the past seven years, and speculation regarding Le Professeur’s future at the club was whispered since 2007, when close friend and vice-chairman David Dein left his position at the club, followed shortly by club captain and highest-ever goal scorer, Thierry Henry. This event had such an impact at the club; it is believed that Wenger had asked Dein if he’d wish for him to resign from his manager position following Dein’s departure. Dein supposedly told him not to do it, for the sake of the club. So Wenger kept on going.
Calls for Arsene’s head were heard as early as 2009. Fans were desperate for trophies, the Youth Project wasn’t bringing results, and fans were divided into two groups, based on their opinion of the manager: Arsene Knows Best group, still loyal to the manager, and the Wenger Out Brigade, which is pretty self-explanatory. The rise of the Black Scarf movement in early 2010 really didn’t help the manager’s reputation within the fans.
But nothing could really prepare fans and club alike to what was about to follow. The club started the new season with only one point in three league games in August, including the well-known Old Trafford humiliation. After the fifth game of the season, the team was in relegation position with just 4 points in their tally. The low point of the season for Wenger had to be the Manchester United home fixture in late January. After Robin van Persie’s equalizer in the 71st minute of the game, the boss decided to take off impressive youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for out-of-form, out-of-favor winger Andrei Arshavin. This decision resulted in boos from the crowd, and even club captain van Persie couldn’t believe this decision, at least from the way he acted on the pitch. Less than ten minutes later, United scored the winning goal of the match.
That game was such a negative landmark for the fans that the Internet forums and communities were starting to organize protests and marches against the manager. I’m pretty sure that during that time, I was ready to order a Black Scarf myself. Even Rwanda’s president and avid Gooner, Paul Kagame, had been quoted saying that the team needed a new manager. Considering this shout came from a borderline-dictator, who had been in office for the past 12 years, must say something.
But then, things changed. A string of impressive team performances, including convincing wins against Blackburn Rovers, Liverpool, Manchester City and the amazing 5-2 derby win over Tottenham Hotspur, restored some of the fan’s belief in the manager. It looked like Wenger had managed, despite all of the season’s troubles, to round up the team behind him. As a team, they secured and fought hard for third place and Champions League automatic qualification.
The tipping point for me, and I believe most fans will agree, was the Champions League home leg against AC Milan. Carrying a heavy 4-0 defeat from the San Siro, a mission impossible to say the least, the team fought extremely hard, and although they couldn’t get to level terms with the Italian club, they proved resilience, resolve and determination. They showed they were made of steel. That they were worthy Gunners.
And above all that, I think as the season went on, fans began to understand that things at Arsenal were not as simple as they seemed. Especially regarding new owner Stan Kroenke and the Arsenal board. Fans were blaming Wenger for dreadful transfer dealings, which saw the club being bullied by players wanting out, by the threat of running down their contracts and moving on a free. A series of AST meetings and statements by executives within the club suggested that the board was pushing towards these kinds of deals, and that the boss’ hands were pretty much tied. (I think we can all see that as well in our current summer saga, the Robin van Persie move to Manchester United seems to have been forced down Wenger’s throat, as he stated time after time that he wanted to keep the striker at all costs, risking him moving on a free next season.)
The boss is not dumb. In fact, he might be one of the smartest people in Football, now or ever. He knows that a player like van Persie, if kept at the club, would have to perform another magical season for Arsenal, in order to secure future interest from potential suitors, and keep future deals at the same level. He would have to play extremely well, and replicate his 30 league goal 2012 season. That, combined with the summer signings we had already made at that point, would see us at a very strong position, maybe even ready to offer a real challenge for the title. (I think all of us know the power of another league title, and its worth, which is miles beyond the 24 million pounds we are supposed to cash on the van Persie deal.)
In the past year, Arsene Wenger has shown week-in, week-out, that he sees, thinks, eats and drinks Arsenal, and that what’s best for the club is the only thing that matters. Sometimes it is beyond his control, but Wenger has shown every single one of us fans that he will do whatever he can to make it happen. I find it very symbolic and amazing, the similarity between the fates of the Club and the manager. Arsene had the worst start to a season in his career. Dumped by players he had believed in and nurtured; fallen out of favor with the fans, and at some point, even with the players. The team had its worst season start in more than 50 years, saw its best players leave the club, its biggest defeat in over 100 years and worst league position ever.
Yet on the 13th of May, 2012, when Mike Jones blew the whistle to end the match at the Hawthorns, Arsenal were in a better position that the year before, and Arsene seemed to be in a better position as well.
I think the way he acted this summer shows that – he expected the van Persie saga in advance, brought in adequate cover, invested real money in the squad, and by the looks of it, seems to be taking the lost controls back in his hands. I believe it shows, more than anything, that Arsene Wenger is a true Gunner, and despite all his shortcomings and flaws – he still remains the only man I see capable of leading this club forward.